Q and A: The Road to a 400 lb Deadlift?

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Q:  I know you are a busy guy but I thought you might be open to hearing from a long time reader and big time fan (not to mention a Canadian).

Today was max deadlift day. We use a 8-5-3-1 progression. I must admit I’m a beginner to heavy lifting so my numbers are a bit sub par, but you’ve got to start somewhere, right? After reading about Cressey Performance’s ideology that any fit male should be able to pull a 400 deadlift with a little focus in training, I figure I have a lot to look forward to.

8 x 225
5 x 275
3 x 295
1 x 315

While I was able to pull 315 for a single, it came after two failed attempts and ended up being an ugly rep at that.

I guess I am just looking for some advice on how to progress towards a heavy single and perhaps how you would handle this as a coach. Would you see two fails and get a client to drop weight? If so by know much? 5,10lbs.

A:  As always, thanks for reaching out and for the kind words.  And, for the record, I have nothing against Canadians.   Even though I live in Boston, and the Bruins and Montreal Canadiens are aboot (ha! Sorry) to butt heads in the first round of the NHL playoffs, I could care less.  I’m not really a hockey fan anyways, so there’s no love lost on my end.

Besides, how can I make fun of a guy whose country has produced the likes of Elisha Cuthbert

and Rachel McAdams?

Okay, I’m going to break this down in list format because 1) I like lists, and 2) It’s  my blog, and I feel like it.

1.  I have a hard time understanding how you can call it a “max effort” deadlift day when you’re performing eight reps!  To me, that’s cardio.

2.  What’s more, lets break the numbers down to better illustrate my point.  You mentioned that you’ve been following a 8-5-3-1 format – okay, so, by the time you actually attempted a heavy single, you had already lifted a combined total of 4,060 lbs.

Comparatively, lets use myself as an example:  here’s how I personally approach a max effort lift.

We won’t count the reps at 135 lbs

225 x 3

315 x 3

405 x 1

465 x 1

495 x 1

??? x  try not to destroy the back of my pants

If you crunch the numbers, by the time I even attempt anything above 500 lbs (my best pull is 570 lbs), I’ve only lifted a combined total of 2,985 lbs.

4,060 (you) – 2,985 (me) = 1,075 lbs MORE tonnage.

3.  No wonder you missed your first two attempts – you were gassed by the time you got there!

Moreover, if you look at your increments, you did 295 for three reps, and then bumped it up 20 lbs and missed (twice), before hitting an (admittedly) ugly rep.  That shouldn’t happen, and just demonstrates that your approach needs a little tweaking.

Tweak Away

  • You’re not strong enough yet to be missing reps (let alone multiple times).  So, stop it.  One of the biggest mistakes I see a lot of trainees make (particularly those who are new to lifting with heavier loads) is missing lifts on a regular basis.  The rationale is to GO HEAVY OR GO HOME.  While I can respect the mentality, you’re really doing nothing but frying your CNS (Central Nervous System) and accomplishing nothing other than not moving any weight.
  • Ditch the 8-5-3-1 format.  To be blunt, it’s retarded.
  • Oh, snap – Evangeline Lilly is from Canada, too.  Just an FYI
  • At this point – given your 1RM is 315 lbs – I’d be reluctant to do any dedicated work above 90%.  Something tells me you’d be best to stick with heavy triples and ensure your technique is rock solid.
  • That said, for the next few months, I’d stick with your basic progressive overload template and just make sure you’re adding 5-10 lbs on your LAST set each month.

So, it may look something like this:

Week 1: 5×3



Work Sets


Week 2: 5×3

Same warm-up as above

Work Sets


Hopefully you get the general idea.  You may very well be able to start with more weight, but I was just using this as an example.  Just try to make a concerted effort to add a liiiiiitle more weight to the bar each and every week.

I have no doubts that if you follow this format, you’ll be pulling multiple sets of 315 for triples in no time.  Once there, then (maybe) we can start opening up the discussion to incorporating heavy singles into the equation (90% + of your 1RM) and charge towards that 400 lb mark.  But until then, keep it simple, use progressive overload (hey, it works!), hit ALL your reps, and tell Evangeline I said hello.

Hope that helps!

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

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Comments for This Entry

  • Nock

    Is it so bad that I was more into the Elisha Cuthbert, Rachel McAdams, and Evangeline Lilly(the best picture out of all of them) pictures instead of Tony's explanation........ LOL. In a serious note though the guy did do a lot of reps before he got to his max attempt. Good detailed answer Tony and thanks for the pics.

    April 13, 2011 at 8:40 am | Reply to this comment

  • Dean Somerset

    Tony - I agree, the high volume prior to max attempt isn't going to bump numbers all that high. I didn't see any real gains until I dropped my rep range to under 5 for my working sets, and the best results came in the 3 and under range, but that took a good solid 3 months to build up to so I didn't rip a disc across the room and take someone's eye out. Great post!!

    April 13, 2011 at 9:11 am | Reply to this comment

  • Jon Goodman

    Great pictures... I mean answer. We Canadians do have some nice exports. I'd love to hear your opinion on the need for the majority of trainees to do 1-RM work. Personally I love doing it but my worry stems from untrained or poorly trained individuals doing max lifts. At what point in a beginner's progress would you introduce 1RM's assuming they had the required mobility? Or maybe a better way to ask the question is what guidelines do you use to know that the trainee is ready for max lifts?

    April 13, 2011 at 10:08 am | Reply to this comment

  • Mosley

    Next blog: road to 500lbs. :-P

    April 13, 2011 at 10:27 am | Reply to this comment

  • Kujo

    Yes, we Canucks have produced some fine female exports. I really like the modified RPT (Reverse Pyramid Training) method. Warm-ups sets like you described, then for example: 400x3 (max effort set, not to failure) 370x4 340x5

    April 13, 2011 at 11:11 am | Reply to this comment

  • R Smith

    Tony, The first thing that struck me was how he's getting eaten up by volume. Same mistake I made early on. I think he'll be pleasantly surprised once he nails down form and is ready for heavy singles. Also, Tony, you're being too modest, man. This fine piece of yours can only help. (Worked for me.) The Dirty Dozen: 12 Tips for Heavier Pulls @ http://tinyurl.com/5v35h4h

    April 13, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Tony Gentilcore

    @ Jon: as with anything, it depends. Clearly, I'm a huge fan of implementing heavy singles into the mix. I mean, you're going to be hard pressed to add any significant weight to any lift if you fail to do so. That being said, I think first, trainees need to get some time under their belt and master technique. Shoot, there's a reason why Bill Starr's 5x5 program is so popular - it works! Especially with newbies. Given a solid YEAR of (proper) training, I'd then say that one could start thinking about heavy singles. You can't put the cart before the horse, though. I think many trainees are far too quick to jump into more advanced training methodologies when they haven't necessarily "put in the time," if you know what I mean.

    April 13, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Tony Gentilcore

    @ Dean: thanks dude! Always appreciate the feedback. Personally, I can't budge my DL without doing heavy singles. But, then again, (and not to toot my own horn), I'd consider myself a more advanced deadlifter (almost 3x bodyweight). The trouble arises, when you have people attempting max effort work because they read something Dave Tate wrote - and they've only been lifting weights for two months. NOT going to look pretty to say the least!

    April 13, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Kashka

    Hey Tony Speaking of Dave Tate, what are your thoughts on westside method where they say you cannot train with weights above 90 percent (3rm) for much longer than three weeks before the nervous system begins to weaken? Do you rotate your max effort exercise very couple of weeks? thanks Kash

    April 13, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Kellie Davis

    Great question and answer! Ugh... I must admit I'm a volume self-flagellate as well. I'm starting to get over it, but used to always pull deads starting at 8 reps. By the time I got to 1 rep I think I was pulling glycogen stores from 1982. Right now I'm sitting at 275 lbs for 1 rep. I am going to try what you suggest and do this progressive overload program. I've also read elsewhere that when doing heavy deads it's a good idea to do them every other week. Do you believe in this theory? I guess 1 week deads, 1 week off or rack pulls. Hmmm...

    April 20, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Reply to this comment

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